Recently Britain-based artrepreneur Martin Creed  brought his band into town to kick off a May-to-October exhibition  under the auspices of condo king Bob Rennie. This essay focuses on the Creed-and-Rennie performance at the 17 May 2011 Emily Carr and Rennie Collection Speaker Series .
Martin Creed started off his solo evening in the art school spotlight with tortured musings: “I just feel like a wanker, you know … It’s much more difficult to wank in public.” A little later: “You can’t talk … I’ll try and be fast … Ah, fuck!”
Further ramblings included: “I didn’t know what I was doing … It wasn’t making me feel good.” And: “I was trying not to decide what I was doing.” And: “If you walk away and have a reason you can take that with you.” This last, for me, was the most interesting thing I heard from Creed. But the kicker is, will Bob Rennie fork out art cash for that non-object?
Eventually Creed set his sights on dialogue and asked for questions or comments. After a few exchanges, he fell into a back-and-forth with a woman who pursued the nature of his relationship with another artist that he had collaborated with. Creed seemed to use the topic to veer off into repetitive put-on. If that is what he was trying to do, he lacked two of the requisites: stellar status and youth. Stellar is much more than a decade-old Turner Prize. Think Bob Dylan for contrast.
One theme that slipped in and out of Creed’s meanderings was making distinctions and separations amid the flux of experience. Creed did manage to describe the satisfaction of taking a shit and believing that the result was not himself.
Well into the evening, the event turned a sharp corner when a young woman questioned Creed about his 72-foot-long neon sign, located on the side of Bob Rennie’s Wing Sang building (“six storeys high on the oldest building in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown”). The gist of the questioning went like this:
How do you respond to feelings of offense in the Downtown Eastside at your sign saying EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT? By location and use, the Wing Sang building itself has become a flashpoint of gentrification. Meanwhile, the condo, so associated with Bob Rennie marketing, poses an overwhelming threat to that community.
Standing off at the side of the auditorium toward the back, Bob Rennie erupted: “This wasn’t supposed to be a social rally!” He went on to accuse the questioner of being “rude enough to hijack” the Creed appearance. Rennie felt that his artist should not have to deal with such a question, and stepped in to protect Creed as an innocent at play in the aesthetic domain of rarefied phenomenology.
Rennie also tossed in mentions of how he had paid to bring Creed and his band into town, how access to his Pender Street building relates to insurance considerations, and how mean people seem to be when all he wants to do is give something back to Vancouver.
Rennie insisted on his status as an optimist and tied that to his display of Creed’s sign. Here Rennie was echoing the conclusion of the web blurb for the Creed piece in his collection:
This public gesture coming from the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – known as the poorest postal code in Canada – celebrates optimism amidst the pervasive — and often exaggerated — negativity found within many of the messages we routinely encounter, offering hope for the future.
And even more directly, Rennie had this to say in September 2009:
On the exterior walls of my new offices in Chinatown, I’ve installed a 23-metre neon work of art by Britain’s Martin Creed. It reads, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT…For the enterprising business person, there are many opportunities to capitalize on this new reality. (BC Business)
Rennie also exclaimed: “I haven’t caused it.” In other words, those inevitable tides of global capital just flow. And/or: Situating and constructing a condo is one thing, but vending all the units is something else.
A second young woman in the audience challenged Rennie on why he had to jump in and hijack the answering of the question. She asked why the artist could not be allowed to speak for himself. Another in the audience told Rennie he was acting like he owned the artist.
As the furor subsided, Creed went on to utter more words and present more solos. Rennie moved to the other side of the auditorium and crouched to carry on a long whispered conversation with the young woman who had questioned the sign.
Talk did come back around to the neon sign, and the artist himself did have some things to say. Creed seemed surprised and taken aback that his creation had generated local negative feelings. Projecting a computer image of Work No. 203, Creed said that this particular instance of EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT was placed in East London [pediment of Orphan’s Asylum, 1826], which he described as not a well-off location. For him, the phrase associates with self-consolation after traumatic break-up with a woman, also reported by Lederman . Creed also offered up a strange defense: “You can’t put irony in words.”
When asked about the money he receives for his productions, Creed exuded bewilderment. He took the need for anyone to have exorbitant money as self-evident. According to the Lederman article, Rennie is “the largest collector of Creed’s work.” So the symbiosis binds very tightly, to the point where Rennie finds himself compelled:
If a piece of Martin’s becomes available … that we think we should have, I have no choice. I have to acquire it. (Lederman )
Both Rennie and Creed found themselves grappling with the implications of what might be termed art space — and both seemed far more at ease with what can be contained within the walls of a museum or some other palace of art.
The Martin Creed event in the Emily Carr and Rennie Collection Speaker Series occurred on problematic terrain: an open “lecture,” free attendance, a public facility. Not to mention unceded indigenous land. By contrast, Rennie’s Pender Street retreat is controlled private space.
At Emily Carr, a “rude” question brought in a “social” dimension and ruptured expected decorum. The patron found his cherished protege exposed to conditions inimical to the hermetics and hermeneutics of free romp in an uncontaminated aesthetic sphere. To the unhappiness of both. Such a shame for an artist who is out to make himself feel good, ahead of anything else.
The Emily Carr audience was remarkable for the extent of its desire to see no contestation emerge from the evening. Never has this writer encountered such resistance to a leaflet as that put up by the departing crowd. An earlier attempt by others to poster a response to Rennie/Creed in public space had already met with stiff repression and immediate sanitation.
Épater le bourgeois lies so far distant from early 21st century west coast Canada. How colonial the dominant Vancouver sensibility remains, fetishizing the valorization of nihilist/hedonist gestures that emanate from the heart of bygone empire.
At least the contesters avoided the immediate co-optation of contributing to a succès de scandale or to the aura of anti-art. It seemed pretty clear that Rennie and his entourage would have preferred not to have these ripples in their pool. Danger persists, though. This account could have better effect by remaining unwritten? History may prove less kind than the immediate circumstances did.
What does it signify to have patron and audience in thrall to inchoate chant of Fuck You? Or to neon radiance of EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT?
For that crew, only mannerly cogitation suits the pursuit.
 Marsha Lederman. From balloons to broccoli: Creed finds a home in Vancouver’s Rennie. Globe & Mail (20 May 2011)
Matt O’Grady. The secret passion of Bob Rennie. Vancouver Magazine (1 Apr 2008)
Bob Rennie. Party’s over for Canada’s baby boom. BC Business (2 Sept 2009)
Frances Bula. “His brave new world.” Globe & Mail (24 Oct 2009)
John Mackie. Bob Rennie’s private art museum opens in Chinatown’s oldest building. Vancouver Sun (24 Oct 2009)
Linda Solomon. Once merely condo royalty, Bob Rennie emerges as Vancouver’s cool king of modern art. Vancouver Observer (15 Aug 2010)